Filmmaker Lawrence Kasdan

The writer-director discusses the real-life inspiration behind his latest film, Darling Companion, and how he fares in an era when blockbuster films dominate the box office.

When Lawrence Kasdan couldn’t find a job teaching English after graduating from the University of Michigan, he became an ad copywriter before finding his niche as a screenwriter. He’s written/co-written four of the most successful pictures in film history (Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi and The Bodyguard—which celebrates its 20th anniversary this year). His directing debut was the 1981 film noir Body Heat, which he also wrote, and the four-time Oscar nominee has since become known for both writing and directing his movies.

TRANSCRIPT

Tavis: Pleased to welcome Lawrence Kasdan to this program. During his stellar career in the film industry, he has written or directed seminal projects, including “The Big Chill,” “The Empire Strikes Back,” “The Bodyguard,” “Grand Canyon” and so many more.

Not bad for a guy who’s struggling as a writer in the mid-1970′s before being hired by Spielberg and Lucas to write “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” Before we get to this latest film, let’s take a look at just a small sampling of his memorable work.

[Clips]

Tavis: For his latest project, Kasdan teamed up once again with one of his favorite actors, Kevin Kline, on the new film, “Darling Companion.” The movie also stars Diane Keaton and Richard Jenkins and opens April 20. Here now a scene from “Darling Companion.”

[Clip]

Tavis: I will come to “Darling Companion” in a moment, but when you watch that sizzle reel, as we call it, you feel old, you feel lucky, both or other?

Lawrence Kasdan: I feel lucky first. It’s really a good job. I liked doing it and it’s all I ever wanted to do. So to be able to do it for years is really lucky, as you know. When you like your work, that’s a blessing.

Tavis: Yeah. As you look at your work on the screen a moment ago, obviously there are different themes and different genres, but is there a thread to your writing or a thread to your work that you hope runs through?

Kasdan: I think that kind of thing happens unconsciously and maybe not, you know, purposely. But I think that your feelings about the world come through. If you write and direct your own movies, and most of these I wrote and directed, then there are certain themes I think that come through that are true in your life.

I guess there’s a kind of humanism in them. I guess I believe in the possibility of good even though I think the world is full of all kinds of things.

Tavis: Why still believe today in the possibility of good when all the evidence seems to be to the contrary?

Kasdan: All the evidence that gets a lot of attention is to the contrary, but there are a lot of people doing amazing things out there quietly and they don’t get the headlines and they don’t get the attention. But there are really good people doing unselfish, generous things, you know, sometimes in complete anonymity, so I think there’s hope for that.

Tavis: I want to go back to your beginning and to the fact that this is all you ever wanted to do. We’ll get to that in just a second.

But one of the reasons why you’re on the program tonight is I was literally in New York a few weeks ago for an event and afterwards with some friends of mine went to have dinner.

I’m sitting at the table and I see the back of this guy’s head at a table near me and I recognized the back of his head. I can’t place it, but I recognized the back of his head.

He turns to the side and I get a side profile and I think I know who he is and then he turns completely around and he says, “Hi, Tavis.” I was like, “Oh, my God, it’s Kevin Kline” who I had never met.

As it turns out, Kevin Kline is a few years ahead of me, but we both are graduates of Indiana University, so we’d never met. Big fan of his work, including his collaborations with you.

So for the first time a few weeks, I meet Kevin Kline at dinner down in the Village in New York. He was telling me all about this film that he was doing with Diane Keaton and Lawrence Kasdan.

Since I knew all about this before I even got a chance to meet you tonight, what is it about this collaboration with Kevin Kline that you keep coming back to?

Kasdan: You know, he can do anything and he’s a great theater actor. He’s probably our greatest Shakespearean actor, which is not the most popular thing in America right now these days, but he is an astounding actor. He can do anything. He’s played regular people for me.

He played a cowboy in “Silverado,” he was a great rider, he handled the guns great. He’s hilarious. We did a movie together called “I Love You to Death.” He played an Italian guy and very funny, and then a French guy in “French Kiss.” So he’s a master of accents and he’s funny, he’s serious.

He can do it all and he’s a great pleasure to work with. I met him 30 years ago when I was casting “Body Heat.” He didn’t get that part, but he got in the next one.

Tavis: Since you went there, what’s it like when a writer or a director or a producer makes contact with somebody on one project, they establish a relationship, it doesn’t work out for that project, but there’s something about them that leads you back to them later on?

You guys eventually come together and collaborate for 30 years as opposed to his hating you that you didn’t cast him in what he thought he should have been cast in.

Kasdan: I think you know when you’ve met a kindred spirit and you put it in a file cabinet in your head and you think, well, I hope to work with that person. It didn’t work out – you know, every movie, every good part in every movie, you could cast ten times over.

There’s so many good actors and so few parts. When you meet someone that doesn’t fit into a project, you think, well, what could I do with them? What could I write for them? What could I think of them next time?

That’s happened for me repeatedly. I’ve been trying to work with Dianne Wiest for 30 years. I just adore here, I idolize her, and now she’s in “Darling Companion.” It was everything I hoped.

Tavis: Tell me about “Darling Companion.”

Kasdan: “Darling Companion” really started about seven years ago when my wife and I rescued a dog from a shelter in Los Angeles. We’d had him a couple of years and we had taken him up to the Rockies in Colorado and we had to go to a wedding.

A friend was watching him and they were on a trail and a mountain biker came by, scared the dog – the dog was seven years old when we rescued him, so he had a lot of hidden neuroses and things we don’t know where they came from – but this mountain bike really scared him and he ran off and we thought he’d show up immediately.

But for all our searching, he didn’t. He just didn’t come down to the little town. We searched through the mountains. We put up ads. We went on the radio. And the dog was out there in rough weather for three weeks. Luckily, we were able to get him back.

That was sort of the inspiration for this movie, not so much about the search for the dog, but about what you go through as you did it and the relationships in the movie and how you can come to care for an animal or a person in such an intense way.

Tavis: Why do you think in film these animal stories, these animal narratives, seem to work not always, but oftentimes?

Kasdan: Not always. There’s a lot of people that relate. You know, having an animal is such an intense, immediate experience. An animal lives only in the moment. They don’t worry about tomorrow, they don’t think about what you did to them yesterday. There’s no grudges.

All the things that we are prone to do as human beings, animals just want to know what’s going on right now. Are we gonna go take a walk? Are we gonna eat? It’s time to sleep? It’s an awfully reassuring reminder of what life is about, I think.

So you find an incredible number of people relating strongly to their pets whether they have a family, no family, whether they live alone with the pet, whether the pet’s a part of the family. I think maybe a lot of people relate to that. I don’t know.

Tavis: You’ve worked with Spielberg and I had somebody on this program a few months who said to me that, when they were directing their first project, they asked Spielberg for advice and he told them three things to not do on their first film. Two of them were anything with water and, secondly, anything with animals.

So obviously, you didn’t take Spielberg’s advice and, of course, this ain’t your first time out anyway. But what are the challenges to filming with animals?

I ask that with all jokes aside because we know the fate of “Luck” on HBO. We know what happened there with these horses. So, obviously, working with animals is not easy and the challenge of directing a movie…

Kasdan: …It’s not easy. I’ve done two westerns and worked with hundreds of horses. I did another movie with a dog in it. The key is your trainers. It’s an atmosphere on the set where that’s the most important thing is the welfare of those animals. It’s for real.

If you get a good trainer, then the animal is responsive when you need it to be responsive and you don’t find yourself losing hours and hours. On a little movie like “Darling Companion,” you really don’t have the time to give up.

So we had great trainers and a great dog. That’s really the key. It’s just like having a tough star, you know. If your dog isn’t gonna be cooperative, it’s gonna cost you.

Tavis: What’s easier? A dog or a big star [laugh]? A dog’s a lot easier, huh?

Kasdan: A dog is easier, but I’ve been very lucky with my actors too. So I consider myself fortunate.

Tavis: When one takes a first glance at this film – and Kevin was telling me about it at this restaurant. I think I may have even said this to him. If I didn’t, I was certainly thinking it.

I have great respect for Kevin Kline, I have great respect for Diane Keaton as actors, yet I think you know where I’m going with this. I’m like this ain’t the blueprint for box office success these days.

Kasdan: No.

Tavis: You know this already.

Kasdan: I know.

Tavis: So why roll the dice?

Kasdan: Well, I don’t think I’ve ever had the blueprint for box office success.

Tavis: Well, you’ve done some things that worked, though. I mean, come on now. We saw the clips a moment ago.

Kasdan: I think you have to write the stories that present themselves to you. You know, it’s hard to write these scripts and to get them done well and then raise the money to do it. It’s harder and harder.

Tavis: But 19-year-old kids aren’t gonna go see this three or four times.

Kasdan: They’re not, they’re not. In fact, I don’t know who’s gonna go see it. But there’s a lot of things – you know, the stars, Kevin and Diane, they’re all in their 60′s. That’s unusual today that the focus of these movies is to be someone of that age, which is my age.

You just don’t see it at all, yet the audience is very much that age and every Friday night they’re looking in the paper for something to see and they’re desperately disappointed, I think, Friday after Friday because they’re not being served.

Tavis: Why do you think that’s the case? I totally agree and I obviously wasn’t asking the question to cast aspersion on Keaton or Kline. Again, they’re fine thespians. But I raise that because Hollywood does have a script – pardon the pun – that they prefer filmmakers to follow.

You’ve gone outside of that, but there is an audience that is desperate every week to find something that they want to see, that mirrors their life or their experiences, something that’s smart. If that audience is there, why doesn’t Hollywood give the people what they want?

Kasdan: The big homeruns, the gigantic movies that are gonna make a billion dollars, are not gonna be found in that area.

Hollywood used to make a very nice living making medium-sized movies and I was very lucky. I was writing and directing them for a long time that way and they were about people. You can still make a nice profit doing that if you’re lucky and what you do connects with people.

But if you’re going for 60 merchandising tie-ins, if you want to be in a drive-in restaurant, a toy and a computer, you’re gonna go for these very wide kind of franchises. So we’ve seen a lot of comic books and remakes and sequels, and that takes some of the fear out of this very expensive enterprise.

Tavis: You said something just now that hit me because I suspect that you’re probably right. As a matter of fact, I think I know you’re right, but I never thought about it or processed it in that way.

That is the notion that this industry, Hollywood, used to make movies about people. Sounds a strange thing to say because one would think ostensibly that every movie is about people and they really are not always about people.

How did that shift happen and what’s the price you think we pay long-term for an industry that isn’t making movies as it used to about people?

Kasdan: Well, I think the whole culture misses it. There’s no question, because the movies are such a powerful form and for them to have given up on that particular thing, which they did for 80 years, they told stories about people. They haven’t given up and there are still an independent film scene where it’s still possible to make movies about people.

But Hollywood has abdicated that a little bit and I think it’s because they’re run by multinational corporations. They’re looking how are we gonna have a gigantic *unintelligible franchise that can be repeatable, that we can make three in four years.

That doesn’t come from stories about dramas about people, comedies about people. It comes from the repeatable franchises that can be merchandised.

Tavis: I want to press again. What do you think is in fact the price we pay for that?

I ask that and I’m thinking in the back of my mind. I was just asked the other day by the Academy here in town to come give the opening remarks and to be the lead-in for the 50th anniversary of “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

I was honored that the Academy asked and I’m delighted to go do it next week sometime. But one of the great films ever made, a move about people with Gregory Peck.

Kasdan: About justice.

Tavis: Oh, Lord, it’s beautiful.

Kasdan: And it formed so many of our ideas for whatever generation. We were in different generations, but for me, for you, I’m sure, you walked out of there and you had an idea of what American justice was supposed to be against all odds when it wasn’t easy.

Those are the kind of stories that were the central support of Hollywood for years. And when you lose that, when you lose those kinds of stories, then the culture suffers terribly because our best writers, our best dramatists, our best filmmakers dramatizing the principles that we hold dear and those things are lost because it doesn’t become the subject matter of films. So when you say what’s lost, it’s everything.

It’s our best people, best actors, applying themselves to those core principles that we hope for in our lives, we hope for in our country, and to have it taken out and have it become a mechanized kind of merchandising machine, that’s a terrible, terrible loss.

Tavis: Does any of this conversation have anything to do with why this film is independently produced?

Kasdan: Absolutely. We didn’t even present this movie to the studios because we didn’t think there was a chance they would make it. Even the comedies that are being made, and some of them are very funny, but they’re very extreme. They tend to be the humor rigger swings rather wildly.

And if you go through that system, if you go through the studio system and you have all those notes the studio gives you, you’re gonna make a very different kind of film than this.

It might be very successful and it might even be good, but it certainly would not be like this movie which is really about the kinds of companionship that people can have over a long marriage, over a brand new romance in mid-life and the kind of relationship across the species, that a dog can actually mean so much to your pet of some kind that you would really go out of your way to see if you could save that pet.

Tavis: You were struggling – I promised I’d get to this – you were struggling for a while, as most folk in this business do. Spielberg and Lucas show up and you got those projects.

You go on to have some other great successes, “The Big Chill,” etc., etc. No pun intended, you took a big chill thereafter. You kind of disappeared for a while. So you have, I think, a unique perspective on what it means to ebb and flow in this business, to be hot and not.

Again, most folk experience that at some point, but your experience is quite unique. What do you learn in the not times that you don’t learn in the hot times?

Kasdan: In the hot times, you’re caught up in it. There was never a moment, I got to tell you, and there was not one day when I ever thought I took it for granted.

I was so thrilled that I had been able to do this thing that I wanted to do since I was 14 years old and I have been able to do it for years and years. When you can’t make a film for a long time, it’s horribly frustrating.

But, you know, everybody’s got frustrations in their life and a lot more than I’ve had. I’ve been very lucky. There’s been a while since I made a movie. That’s all the complaint I can have. I’ve been making a living. I’ve had my family and been able to support them.

I can’t complain about anything. The fact that I’ve directed 11 movies, who can complain about that? And I hope to make another and another until I run out of gas, you know.

Tavis: When it’s this difficult to get high-quality stories made, why keep fighting so hard? I mean, you’re not getting any younger and, obviously, you’re still doing good work. But why even beat your head against that wall?

Kasdan: Because it is the most satisfying work for me. For me, it’s exactly what I hoped it would be. When you go on the set, you are surrounded by – and this is the real thing, this is the bottom line – the crew, the cast.

These are people that have spent their entire life getting to be very good at that one particular thing they do, whether it’s the acting or the makeup or the camera. It’s like playing on an all-star team. It doesn’t matter what the budget is on your movie.

You come in there, truck’s there, the people that got up at 5:00 in the morning, and they are gonna race all day long to get your work done and they’re gonna do it as a team. There is nothing more invigorating or thrilling than that.

That’s what I always wanted and that is there when you’re making “Darling Companion” on a very small budget in Utah or you’re making a very big picture somewhere. No difference whatsoever.

Tavis: You said four times by my count in this conversation, so I take you at your word that this is all you ever wanted to do. You’ve reminded me of that a few times, so I accept that. How did you know at 14 that this is all you ever wanted to do?

Kasdan: It must have been a combination of things that had happened in my childhood and being struck by stories and then seeing certain movies.

Seeing “The Great Escape,” seeing “Magnificent Seven” and then, when I was 14 years old, I saw “Lawrence of Arabia” and it overwhelmed me, it overwhelmed me. I was astounded that a human being, David Lean, had been able to marshal all those forces to tell a story that touched me, a kid from West Virginia.

I understood this very exotic setting, I understood what was at stake for him, I understood that he was a compromised hero, that he was not simple in any way, he was not a Hollywood hero.

The majesty of the thing just lifted me out of my seat and yet the detail about what his life was like and the decisions he made. So I thought, oh, my God, movies can do anything and that’s what I want to do. I want to try to make those movies.

Tavis: Do you think movies can still do anything?

Kasdan: Oh, yes. Oh, yes. The great movie could be starting today, could have just wrapped yesterday. We don’t know what’s coming down the line.

The system’s gotten more difficult, but no one said it was gonna be easy. Nothing good is easy, but, yeah, great films will be made this year and next year and hopefully forever.

Tavis: And you’re not stopping anytime soon, I take it.

Kasdan: Not if I can help it [laugh].

Tavis: The new project from Lawrence Kasdan is called “Darling Companion” starring Diane Keaton and Kevin Kline. It’s got a good story line to it and I’m glad to have you on the program.

Kasdan: Thank you, Tavis.

Tavis: Thanks for coming to see us.

Kasdan: Thanks for having me.

Tavis: Glad to have you here. That’s our show for tonight. I’ll see you back here next time on PBS. Until then, goodnight from Los Angeles, thanks for watching and, as always, keep the faith.

[Clip]

Narrator: Every community has a Martin Luther King Boulevard. It’s the cornerstone we all know. It’s not just a street or boulevard, but a place where Walmart stands together with your community to make every day better.

Narrator: And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.

Last modified: April 9, 2012 at 6:13 pm